Murder, She Prayed: A Crime Thriller With an ultra-Orthodox Twist

As she pieces together the story behind the murder of a Hasidic woman, a young crime reporter is forced to confront her own demons, in Julia Dahl's masterly, pitch-perfect first novel.

Nif Kafri

“Invisible City,” by Julia Dahl, Minotaur Books, 298 pages, $25

Rebekah Roberts’ life is a mess. She suffers from severe and chronic anxiety that manifests itself in elevated pulse, cold sweats and a sensitive digestive tract that is always ready to explode in one direction or the other.

A 24-year-old, recent graduate of the University of Central Florida, Rebekah is undoubtedly intelligent and ambitious, but that just makes her decision to pursue a career in print media – today, as so many veteran journalists are heading for the nearest exit – all that much harder to fathom. She has found work, however, stringing for the New York Tribune, a tabloid, for which she spends her days and nights staking out crime scenes and the homes of minor celebrities caught up in scandal, on the remote chance that a cop or a neighbor will throw her a scrap of information she can phone in to the office.

Tony, the bartender guy she’s been seeing, is “very not metrosexual” but “an amazing kisser.” He’s also kind and patient, and he seems to be crazy about Rebekah – so naturally, with her self-defeating tendency, she keeps pushing him away, as, for example, when his invasive curiosity drives him to go online to track down an award-winning series of articles she wrote for her undergraduate newspaper, and she reacts angrily, as if she was being stalked.

When we meet the narrator of Julia Dahl’s crime thriller “Invisible City,” she is shivering outside a scrap yard in Gowanus, Brooklyn, angling for a glimpse of a body that’s just been discovered on the premises. The temperature is sub-zero, the police spokesman on the scene won’t even look in her direction (Rebekah doesn’t yet have proper press credentials), but, most unnerving, the nude body that was found by a crane while it was moving materials to a barge in the adjacent canal is that of a youngish woman whose head is bald. This leads to speculation, soon confirmed, that she belongs to one of Brooklyn’s Hasidic communities.

That reminds Rebekah of something that is never far below the surface of her consciousness: Her own mother was an ultra-Orthodox Jew who abandoned her and her non-Jewish father when Rebekah was only six months old. So complete was her disappearance that her daughter does not even know if Aviva Kagan is alive.

Aviva met Rebekah’s father when she was going through a period of “questioning” – uncertainty about her religious beliefs – during late adolescence. They were both browsing the religion section of the Strand used-bookstore in Manhattan. Brian, a religion student, was looking for a copy of “The Screwtape Letters”; Aviva was seeking answers to all the big questions. They began talking, they fell in love, and she followed him to Florida. But when Aviva got pregnant, and Brian proposed, she panicked, and after Rebekah’s birth, she returned, alone, to New York, to the not-so-warm embrace of her Haredi family.

Rebekah’s dad and his wife have been loving and caring, but, as she describes it, “the hole my mother left in me never healed.” Together with her anxiety, for which she always has a supply of pills on hand, she also carries around a bellyful of anger and suspicion. At the same time, though, she is vulnerable and compassionate, and has a funny and foul mouth that could lead you to believe she’s lived her whole life in Brooklyn, rather than being a recent émigré. Rebekah is also curious about, even proud of, the Jewish heritage she has never had a chance to try on.

‘Who you gonna call?’

Chasi Annexy

It is by chance that Rebekah is sent to the scene when the body of Rivka Mendelssohn is found at the junkyard, but she is quickly sucked into the case. For one thing, it becomes clear that the police are allowing the Shomrim, the private security force connected to Mendelssohn’s Hasidic community, to take the lead in handling the case. Though it is clear that she died violently, it is the Shomrim, not the New York medical examiner, who remove her body, so that it can be prepared for immediate burial, rather than subjected to examination by a forensic pathologist.

Rebekah quickly learns that Rivka’s husband, Aron, is the main funder of the Shomrim, and a contributor to local politicians – as well as the owner of the Smith Street Scrap Yard. And yet, Aron does not appear to have been questioned by detectives. Clearly, the cops have been told to let the ultra-Orthodox police themselves. Or, as one of Rebekah’s stories on the subject in the Tribune opens: “Who you gonna call? Not the NYPD.”

It is not just the reporter in Rebekah that is hooked by the challenge of investigating a crime and possible cover-up, it is also the abandoned daughter. Because, as she starts to piece together the story of Rivka Mendelssohn – another “questioner” who had begun to stray dangerously from the straight-and-narrow path set out by her community before she was bludgeoned to death – she can’t help but see the parallels between the victim and her own mother. And with only partial awareness of what’s happening to her, Rebekah begins to feel responsible for unraveling the mystery of Rivka’s death, as if discovering what happened to Rivka might bring her closer to discovering Aviva.

When Rebekah tries to interview people from Rivka’s community about her, they ask if she’s Jewish. She says yes, which is technically true, but also misleading. She also begins referring to herself as Rivka – the Hebrew form of her name. Much much later, she admits to herself that “I misinterpreted what they were asking when they asked, over and over, You’re Jewish? It wasn’t, do you know this phrase in Hebrew or have you been bat mitzvahed. They were asking me: Do you understand? The fear of being a Jew. The baggage ... The desperate need for self-preservation. And, of course, I don’t really know. I only know the baggage of being me. But part of it, I think now, is being a Jew.”

Her sleuthing takes a toll on Rebekah – not just because as she gets closer to the truth, she puts herself in physical danger, but also because every stage of her journey into the unknown causes her near-debilitating anxiety. But she doesn’t give into her nerves. As she explains: “My body is screaming at me. But it screams so often that it’s easy to ignore. And I have a story to get, so fuck you, body.”

Julia Dahl, a former crime reporter for The New York Post and many other publications, and whose jacket bio tells us she “was born in Fresno, California, to a Lutheran father and a Jewish mother,” tells this story with perfect pitch, and with the kind of details that make us think she’s been there herself, rather than that she’s good at online research. When Rebekah is called into an unplanned meeting with the Tribune’s managing editor, after he’s received complaints from the police about her snooping, she writes, “I am not dressed to meet the boss. My dirty hair is twisted up in a plastic clip and I’m a month overdue for a lip and eyebrow wax.”

I’d never heard of eyebrow waxing before, but I do believe this is what went through Rebekah’s mind as she was on her way to the lions’ den. Then, when the same editor wants to know what’s she’s uncovered, and she lays out the entire story, she wants him to understand just how cruel the murder victim’s fate was: “They shaved her head and stripped her and dumped her in the scrap pile. She’d be on her way to China if not for dumb luck.”

New Yorkers are worldly, and members of the ultra-Orthodox community are part of the daily scenery for them, but that doesn’t mean they have much knowledge or understanding of their lives. At first glance, the Hasidim Rebekah encounters seem uniformly unappealing, as well as hostile – the men are “wrapped like undertakers in their hats and coats all year long, their untended beards and dandruff-dusted shoulders like a middle finger to anyone forced against them on the subway at rush hour”; the women “simultaneously sexless and fecund in aggressively flat shoes, thick flesh-colored stockings and shapeless clothing ... always surrounded by children.”

As one character, the dignified and courageous Malka, who works at the funeral home where Rivka’s body is prepared for burial, tells Rebekah: “You look at us and you see black hats and you see wigs and you think that we are to be pitied. You think you know better. But you do not see more than you see.”

By the end of “Invisible City” – and we have reason to hope that our anxious heroine will be back in future installments – Rebekah Roberts has come to see far more than is readily visible to the eye, and she acquires not only sympathy for the very restricted lives led by the women she meets, but also substantial respect for their modesty and their solidarity. She’s learned something about human diversity and frailty, and this equips her with more forgiveness for those around her. That includes the absent mother who is a constant presence, and also herself.

Who could ask for more?